Sadly, The Book of Henry commits all of these sins, the most grievous of which is its inability to encompass a variety of plot threads while also adding thriller elements about an ill-defined case of child abuse.
The Book of Henry isn't easy to write about without including spoilers, but parents who plan on taking kids should know that the movie includes the death of a child. If that ruins the movie for you, so be it. I'll say no more about it.
Director Colin Trevorrow, who wrote the screenplay for Jurassic World and who directed the well-received Safety Not Guaranteed, shifts from comedy to drama in ways that create an atmosphere that's shot through with improbabilities.
Absent much to say about the plot, I'll tell you about the characters. Eleven-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) lives with his single mom (Naomi Watts) and his younger brother (Jacob Tremblay) in a suburban New York town.
Mom works as a waitress. In addition to all his other talents, Henry excels at finance. He manages Mom's funds.
Not only is Henry a whiz at practical matters, he also holds his mother to a high moral standard, which he prosaically states: When others are being abused, we're obligated to intervene, Henry says.
Watts struggles to play a single mom who has turned her oldest son into a helpmate, a form of parental irresponsibility that sometimes occurs with single parents, but -- in this case -- has been carried to unbelievable extremes.
Watts's character seems to have only one friend, another waitress (Sarah Silverman), a woman who sports a large, flowery tattoo above her exposed cleavage, who may be an alcoholic and who hardly needed to be in the movie at all.
The movie's thriller component involves one of Henry's classmates (Maddie Ziegler), a girl who lives next door to Henry with her widowed stepfather (Dean Norris), who also happens to be the town's police commissioner.
In Rear-Window style, Henry observes the house next door and learns that Norris' Glenn Sickleman is abusing his stepdaughter. Henry documents his findings in a diary of sorts, the book that gives the film its title. He also authors a plan to halt the abuse.
Working from a screenplay by Gregg Hurwitz, Trevorrow fails to wring much emotion out of the story's soap-operatic elements. As a thriller, the movie comes across as absurdly twisted. Worst of all, it short-changes issues that deserve serious exploration.